“What the Young Man Should Know” From Harper’s Magazine 1933

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 2, 2012 · 54 comments

in A Man's Life

Editor’s note: An AoM reader recently wrote me a letter recommending I look up this old essay, which originally appeared in Harper’s Magazine in March 1933. I did so, and was delighted by what I found. In the piece, Robert Littell takes on a classic genre: the listing of those skills every man should know. Naturally the fun of such lists is the passionate discussion that results from men adding their two cents as to what belongs and what doesn’t, and what should have been included instead, and I’m sure Littell’s list will have you both nodding and shaking your head. It’s fun to see the anachronisms in the essay, but also how much is still relevant and resonant almost 100 years later. We plan on putting out a list like this of our own one day, but it surely won’t have Littell’s erudite style and wit. This is a real gem. Enjoy!

“What the Young Man Should Know”

By Robert Littell, 1933

Glancing out of the window, I can see the subject–and eventual victim–of this inquiry, dangerously perched in the crotch of an old chestnut tree, about fifteen feet above the ground. Should I rush out and tell him to get down? Or should I let him be, hoping that he won’t climb any higher, or, if he does climb any higher, hoping that he will not fall?

It is probably all right, so I shall not bother him. Tree climbing is one of the things he has learned all by himself. There aren’t many things he will have the fun of learning all by himself. Most of the things he is going to learn will be hammered into him–Latin and history and grammar and mathematics up to the binomial theorem. I’m not worried about this progress up the ladder from high school or boarding school to college and from college to law school or medical school. It seems incredible that the young biped now perched in the chestnut tree will some day, without stupendous effort on my part or on his, eventually graduate from college or even become a Ph.D.–but he will almost certainly. The strictly educational side of his life, once he gets his hands firmly on the lowest rung of that ancient ladder, will take care of itself.

What concerns me is something entirely different, a good deal more like tree climbing. I have never heard of a school or college that gave a course in tree climbing. And human life is full of useful accomplishments and rewarding experiences, like tree climbing–like making a speech, for example, or being able to take care of oneself on a camping trip: abilities that seem to me at least as valuable as a knowledge of conjugations and the dates of battles–perhaps (if one is to become a self-sufficient well-rounded human being) much more valuable. What are those abilities, skills, or accomplishments, those extra-curricular proficiencies that every man should have in order to be rounded and self-sufficient, and when can he acquire them, and how?

Let me return–without looking at him, for he is probably by now thirty feet above the ground–to the seven-year-old imp in the chestnut tree. Impartially adding up to myself his skills other than tree climbing, I find that he cannot count money or give change, that he is unable to tie his own shoelaces, that he would most certainly starve if left alone in a well-stocked kitchen, but, on the other hand, that he can perform a rather startling back somersault off a diving board, that he speaks and understands elementary German, and can sit down at the piano and play, with only a few mistakes, a Mozart minuet. Clearly, to this handful of skills and accomplishments he must add others, many others, before he is even on the road to becoming a self-sufficient and well-rounded young man. Leaving all formal subjects out of consideration, he should learn how to:

  • Swim
  • Handle firearms
  • Speak in public
  • Cook
  • Typewrite
  • Ride a horse
  • Drive a car
  • Dance
  • Drink
  • And speak at least one foreign language well

The list does not end there. There are several dozen mental and physical skills that I should like him to acquire. He will acquire some of them in the mere course of growing up; he will acquire some of them more painfully, as the result of adult pressure; there are others that he will avoid; and he will eventually be punished for their omissions with not a little discomfort and social misery. Ordinary education, even high-priced education, will not guarantee him the essential skills, and some of them are better learned after “education” is over. It is up to me to set about making a list of those skills, it is up to me to see to it that he gets them, because they are skills of hand, eye, ear, or brain which will enlarge, deepen, and ripen him as a human being.

But how, you may ask, can a young man be enlarged by learning how to handle firearms? In what conceivable way will he be ripened by knowing how to cook or drink?

Patience… In asking what these things are that every civilized, intelligent, educated young man should know, remember that I am thinking of skills, not contents, of outside interests and non-scholastic activities rather than of the stream of Latin, Greek, physics, social sciences, Jacobean poetry, and elementary bee-keeping which, from kindergarten to senior year, will moisten, but not clog, the sieve that is his mind. And so let me hasten to turn away from the mountain range of modern education which threatens to cast its shadow over this discussion; let me mention once, and then not mention again, the project method, John Dewey, intelligence quotients, and the Dalton plan. The average high school or boarding school is not modern and will give your son and mine little beside formal education and even more formal sport: one will get him into college and the other may leave him with a peculiarly atrocious form of high-athletic patriotism. If we parents do not supplement what is given by the usual schools, our sons will come out of them mere Christian stockbrokers with an abnormal craving for bodily exercise. If we want our sons to be able to drive a car, speak French fluently, play the piano, set a broken leg, and make horses do their bidding we shall have to look outside of the schools and colleges. And I submit that he who cannot do these things is not completely educated.

The list of skills, as distinct from book learning, does not include mere parlor tricks, such as playing the ukulele, fortune-telling, a startling acquaintance with the insides of the Encyclopedia Britannica or other accomplishments whereby the fear-psychology advertisements promise to make their victims the life of the party or a successful salesman in ten lessons. And the list does not include the special aptitudes necessary to a man in this profession or the accomplishments which aim at the development of his character. The skills I have in mind may fortify character, but chiefly as a by-product. They will make life richer and, therefore, happier (though happiness itself is usually a by-product). They are tools which will help a man to mine his own vein of gold and some of the gold in the world about him. Some of them will save him discomfort, some of them will bring satisfaction and pleasure, some of them will help him avoid danger, and give him the joy of mastery over animal fears. Some are elementary and taken for granted; others are rarer accomplishments not always striven for.

II

It seems obvious that our young man should know how to swim. More specifically, he should know how to swim at least a mile, dive creditably, and not feel panicky under water. No parents will disagree on this point, since anyone who does not know how to swim stands in some danger of being drowned. Swimming is valuable not only to preserve life but because the fear of water is instinctive, and the most civilized man is the one who has conquered all that makes him afraid and that can be conquered. Not only should our young man be able to dive courageously and neatly, but he should be able also to revive those less skillful than himself by rolling them on a barrel and pumping their helpless arms; though I do not insist that every young man should be a lifeguard–if he learns all the other accomplishments expected of him he will have little time left for that.

He should be able to drive an automobile well. By well, I mean far better than most people do now. Of all our conveniences the automobile is the most docile, and the most dangerous. It seems to encourage a perilous discourtesy. People who always answer letters, smile when spoken to, and rise when ladies enter the room think nothing of hogging the road or passing on a curve. Our young man should drive safely or not at all. He must know how to change a tire and offer some sort of diagnosis when the engine sputters and dies.

My list does not include a knowledge of how to pilot a plane. Good pilots are born, not made. A man should stay on the ground unless peculiarly fitted for the air. He may be as air-minded as you please, but unless he is air-bodied and air-reflexed, this modern skill should be left severely alone.

He ought to know how to clean, load, and shoot a revolver or a rifle. Some day he may have to, in self-defense. And shooting at a target is also good fun, and an excellent discipline for hand and eye. I should like my son to be able to hit a silver dollar at fifty yards. And I should insist that he be able to manage a gun so as to injure no one but the target. He must not be the kind of duffer who makes bystanders nervous. I do not advance shooting as valuable for reasons of citizenship or military training. I prefer that what he shoots at be inanimate. He may develop a passion for shooting duck, grouse, and deer–without my blessing; for it seems to me that the longing to assassinate wild animals is a barbarous and childish method of asserting the superiority of the human race, and considerably less civilized than dueling.

As for self-defense, a man should certainly be able to take care of himself in a scrap. He need not learn jujitsu–old-fashioned boxing will be enough. He will get some of this in school. He should get enough of it so that he can give, and take, a good smack on the jaw, whether in friendship or anger. No matter how short the list of his accomplishments, this should be one of them. The Soviet Russians, who have seldom hesitated to use firearms against those whom doctrine forces them to consider enemies, hold boxing to be brutal, and forbid it to their young men. Let us register our disagreement and pass on.

He should learn how to take care of himself in other ways. He ought to know the rudiments of camping, how to build a fire, how to chop wood, how to take a cinder out of his eye, how to deal with a severed artery, how to doctor himself for ordinary ailments. He should also be able to take care of other people in emergencies, to apply first aid, set a broken bone, revive a drunk or a victim of gas, deal with a fainting fit, administer the right emetic or antidote for a case of poisoning. And he should be able to feed himself, to cook, not only because some day he may need to, but because cooking is one of the fine arts, and a source of infinite pleasure. He should be able to scramble eggs, brew coffee, broil a steak, dress a salad, carve a chicken, and produce, on occasion, one first-class dish, such as onion soup. The more he can do, in these days of the delicatessen store and the kitchenette, the better. It is not effeminate, it is not beyond him, and the best chefs are all men.

Our hands, originally the keys used by man’s brain to unlock the whole wide world, are in this age of patent appliances in some danger of withering through disease. A man may go through life without using his hands for anything more difficult than gripping a golf club, signing letters, fumbling coins, lighting a cigarette, opening a bottle, and holding a telephone receiver. When the furnace goes out, or the radio goes dumb, or a door won’t close, or a pipe leaks, he has to send for an expensive expert. Therefore, our young man should learn to be handy in repairing the trifling faults of his home. Of course, he may live all his life in apartment houses and be spared such attention to trifling faults; but if he must live in apartment houses I had rather have him do so from choice than from incompetence. He should know how to use paint brushes, a saw, a hammer, and other common tools. It is much more fun then he might think; it adds to his self-respect; it satisfies the throttled manual ape, and it supplies one of his few contacts with the remote world of physical labor.

One of the best tools he can use is practically unknown among those who have not spent some time in a newspaper office: the typewriter. Our young man should also have a beautiful and distinguished handwriting. He will not learn this in any school–schools are as likely as not to ruin whatever handwriting he might have had. But handwriting should be reserved for special occasions. The bulk of his writing, particularly if he is a professional man who has much of it to do, should be done on a typewriter. I do not mean poking at the machine with two fingers, but full-fledged touch-system, capable of turning out three thousand words an hour. This talent will be enormously useful. Spread widely enough, it might even revive the lost art of letter writing, and undo some of the harm, the laziness, the mental as well as verbal sloppiness induced by the appalling habit of dictating to a stenographer.

III

He should play one outdoor game well, and have a workable smattering of several more. To my eye, an American who cannot throw and catch a ball seems pathetic and grotesque. Perhaps I am prejudiced. And baseball, except for boys and a small band of professionals is a lost cause. The usual American game is golf. So let him learn, for the sake of human contact and outdoor recreation, to go around the course in at most a hundred and ten. If it were a question of my own son, I should try to steer him toward tennis, a livelier game and prettier to watch, and one with more possibilities of mental release than golf, which often undoes in discouragement, obsession, and emotional strain the good it does as an exercise. A game should not be an end in itself–as is often true of golf–but a relaxation and complete contrast to the sedentary. There is something a little sedentary about golf.

The bicycle has gone, yet every boy should know how to ride one. Don’t ask me why. He should also be able to skate, sail a boat, and handle a canoe passably. Fishing is a specialty, like chess: those who have it in them will eventually find themselves doing it; those show do not feel the call need not bother. It is a singular commentary on college athletics to realize how few sports a man can get along with quite happily after graduation; how quickly the vast array of football, soccer, pole vaulting, basket-ball, water polo, lacrosse, hurdling, handball, rowing, wrestling, fencing, shrinks in after life to golf or tennis, or, surprisingly often, to occasional sweat in the steam cabinet.

Walking is a noble but neglected sport. Americans “hike” once in a long while but seldom walk. And hiking easily becomes hitch-hiking. The automobile, organized athletics, and the fact that American cities and American suburbs are dismal places to walk in have caused American feet to abandon the roads. For every climber in an American national park–some of which are quite as beautiful as any Alps–there are ten “hikers,” fifty who “pack” on horses, and ten thousand who survey the wonders of nature from the windows of a sedan. Walking in this country is a lost cause, yet walking is one of the habits I should wish my son to acquire. No other exercise, if indulged in several days at a time in pleasant, moderately wild country, has greater power to remake a man, to iron out his creases, to produce deep health and spiritual calm. The first steps in this elementary course had best be taken in Europe, where the natives do not look upon people with heavy shoes and knapsacks as slightly cracked.

Everyone should know a great deal about animals. It is natural for boys to collect stray dogs, and all children seem instinctively to be much more interested in every other branch of the animal kingdom than their own. It is equally natural for the the city and suburban boy to grow up with no more contact with animals than Mickey Mouse and an occasional trip to the zoo. Kindness to animals and an understanding of them has become in modern life a skill that must be nourished and artificially trained. I do not expect my son  to become a Raymond Ditmars or a William Beebe. But I shall think him lacking unless he has much to do with animals and gets on well with them. Civilization has hustled us all horribly fast and horribly far away from our primitive state, from the time, biologically not very long ago, when man’s life depended a great deal on animals. A certain return to nature is healthy and desirable.

The best animal for the purpose of the return to nature is the horse. I insist then that a boy should have many horses in his life, and should learn how to stay in a saddle with pleasure to himself and a minimum of annoyance to his mount. Riding is one of the required studies in my curriculum, valuable both as one of the possible victories over physical timidity, and as a source of pleasure. With riding should go some knowledge of how to take care of a horse. But I should not like my son to become horsey. Horsey people are victims of an obsession even worse than golf. They lead, mentally, four-footed lives, and the spiritual aroma of the Noblest of Beasts clings to them as the smell of straw and manure clings to the stables. It is a clean, time-honored smell, but a bit too pervasive. I have three fears for the future of my son: that he will join the Army, enter the Church, or become horsey.

IV

Trivial, but important because one can be so uncomfortable if one does not know them, are the parlor amenities. A boy should learn how to dance. Good dancers, like aviators, are born, but any one can learn to do modern real-estate dancing–that  form of rhythmically bumping into other people in a small space with a technic dictated by the high land value of the places where dancing is usually found. The kind of dancing that is really fun is extinct in America. Social dancing is no great art, but essential if one wishes between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two to become acquainted with more than a few specimens of the opposite sex.

As to card games, I play bridge so badly myself that I am prejudiced against it. If one plays bridge well enough to enjoy it, one probably plays too much of it to the exclusion of better things. As a refuge from boring conversation, it is without equal. Backgammon, though useful for the same purpose, is a monotonous blind alley. Pool and billiards are specialties. From these indoor pastimes our student can pick one optional elementary course, which will be given at the pleasure of the instructor.

Even more trivial, but infuriating if one is clumsy at it: tipping. It would be very pleasant to go though life with a knowledge of how to tip naturally, justly, without fear and without reproach.

American social habits being what they are, there is one indoor skill which seems to me not only far more important than bridge or dancing, but actually compulsory–drinking. A young man who could convince me that his lips would never touch liquor might be let off by my required course in drinking. But he would be an exceedingly rare bird, and alcohol is so much more evident a liquid in the United States than water that it is probably quite as necessary for a young man to learn how to drink as it is for him to learn how to swim. If the youth of the country had been taught how to drink, just as they were taught not to eat between meals or swallow before they had chewed, we should never have had Prohibition. It is a more difficult art than most, for every man should know, long before the time when (according to our customs) he indulges in his first collegiate binge, whether liquor goes to his head, his legs, or his morals, whether he is the type that sings, fights, weeps, climbs lamp-posts, or pinches the girls. Furthermore, he should learn his capacity and stick within its limits; he should know something about the different kinds of drink, and which drinks produce chaos within him when mixed. By all means let him leave drink alone if wants to. But since, nine times out of ten, he will drink, let him do so sensibly.

I have omitted from this list all the mention of women, not so much because it is a subject of appalling breadth, leading to endless discussion of chastity, frustration, fulfillment, birth-control, curiosity, mate hunger, and other less printable but even more important topics, but because, in regard to the other sex, the fairly well-educated seem to be at as great a disadvantage as the rest of mankind. What every high school, boarding school, and college graduate should know is no different from what every man should learn in this darkest and most unteachable province of human conduct. I shall not be the one to tell students of this course what acquired skills can prevent mistakes and heartache. Where sex is concerned, nature clearly intended us to make many mistakes in her hope that some of them would be productive.

I shall certainly be in a minority in suggesting that our sons should know the rudiments of gambling. Gambling might be placed on the same plane as drink–the less use one has for it the better. And the sooner America gives up gambling, not only at card tables, roulette wheels, and slot machines, but in stocks and bonds of equally mysterious and unpredictable corporations, the better also. But gambling in one form or another seems to be a national habit of mind. Almost every American gambles at some time in his life. And there are things valuable in other departments of life which gambling can teach: to be a good sport, to be a good winner as well as a good loser, especially when games are played for money; not to brood over the irrevocable, not to give way to retroactive daydreams and say, “if only I had put a big stack on double zero, if only I had sold out in August, 1929.” October of that year was the rout of the amateur gambler, and the crash revealed this country to be singularly full of poor losers. Important as it is to be a good loser in public, it is even more important to learn not to try to turn the hands of the clock backward in the privacy of one’s own soul.

V

Higher than almost any other accomplishment on the list do I place music. There is no reason why any boy who is not absolutely tone-deaf should not learn how to play one musical instrument well enough for it to be a self-resource and a tolerable pleasure to others. If it were not for the certainty that our educators would make it as deadly during school and as shunned in after life as that badly embalmed language, I should advocate the substitution of music for Latin as a required subject. Music is, or ought to be, an essential part of every civilized human being’s life. Economic necessity, the radio, and the phonograph have put the playing of music beyond most Americans. Our children should bring this back. My choice would be the piano–the violin is far more painful in incompetent hands, and most other instruments are not meant to be heard singly. The saxophone and the ukulele should be placed on a par with the taking of drugs. There is much to be said for being able to sing parts decently, and any amateur who know the words of even the commonest songs is a phenomenon. I realize that even this is asking a great deal. Perhaps I expect too much. My students will receive a passing grade if they can sit and listen to good music intelligently, and moderately often without pressure.

A civilized man should know how to read. The ability to read, or rather the habit of reading, is a very rare even among intelligent people, and has to be taught and kept up if it is not to become rust. The educators tumble over one another with new methods of teaching children how to make sense out of print, but not a single pedagogue, so far as I know, has successfully tackled the problem of how to keep people reading books once they have learned that it can be done. Incidentally, if someone were to write a little book called How to Read the Newspapers he would earn the undying gratitude of those who search hurriedly for the sports, the market, the obituaries, glance at the headlines, and then throw all of the newspapers on the floor.

If the young man over whose head hangs this list of accomplishments could not find time, because of the necessity of heeling for the News or keeping dates with co-eds, for more than a few of these skills, let a fluent reading and speaking knowledge of at least one foreign language be among them, French or German, preferably both. A parent must expect no help from schools in the teaching of foreign languages–or rather (such is the impression of the student who goes to the average school) in the teaching of irregular verbs. Governesses and tutors, little trips abroad in adolescent summers, can start a false spring which withers and dies as soon as the child goes to a regular school. Everyone learns one’s language as he learns to walk–the learnings of one more ought not to be so hopeless. But hopeless it is for Americans. Parents should form a foreign-language study association and devise ways to supplement, and combat, the schools. German children learn an amazingly good brand of English without ever crossing their borders. Why can’t we? For one thing we don’t really want to. Yet we should. An American who knows only English is blind in one eye.

Corollary to this are the skills and experiences that come from travel, and the tolerances and curiosities about other sorts of people that only travel can produce. To travel well, efficiently, without fuss or complaint, without asking why porters are so stupid or blaming the Italians for speaking their own language is no small accomplishment. But what I have in mind is a wider mental habit, an ability to think like a citizen of the world, to meet foreigners upon their own terms, to circulate freely and receptively in London without giving in to that curious chameleon temptation to be at the same time a little ashamed of one’s own country and to imitate the British.

The British have it over us in two particulars: their educated men talk well in public and handle their own language, in speech and in writing, as if it were a familiar object. Our young man should be able to express himself clearly before a crowd of strangers, without shyness, muddle, or a pathetic resort to “so much as been said and well said” or “I did not expect to be called on.” Children somehow get over the terror of saying “how do you do” to strangers, but the American adult who can get to his feet, propose a toast, introduce a stranger, voice a civic protest, heckle a windbag politician, and give utterance to an unembarrassed thought is a museum piece. And a man should command the elementary tool of written language, and be able to put simple things on paper in clear words; for in its essentials writing is not a mysterious art, but a human function, as possible to learn as walking or eating.

On the borderline between the skills like these and book-learning are all such things as a sound smattering of the theater, painting, opera, a good workable understanding of the structure of business, investments, and banks (which in real life are not quite as they seem in the textbooks of economics).

To these skills and knowledges I would emphatically add certain experiences. The educated young American male is in peril of too much shelter, too little danger and privations, and would be the richer if he had at some time in his life been without money and gone hungry for several days, been lost or shipwrecked, been robbed, been in jail, and spent a few months working as a common laborer. This last I place high on the list. Let every educated man, as a necessary part of his education, be thrown into the muddy stream of American industry and see what it is like to swim alone on daily wages.

The list of extra-curricular accomplishments must come to an end, or our young friend will not pass his board examinations. One more desideratum: he should before reaching twenty-two have done something because he wanted to, whether other people wanted him to do it or not–sailed a boat on a perilous course, or shipped as a common seaman, or taken a job on a newspaper, or motored across the continent, or gone off to Europe on his own, or learned boiler-making. Anything, so long as it was his own idea. And how does one make healthy young middle-class Americans want to do something if all they want to do is enjoy themselves? Ah, if I knew that…

And into the young man’s bag of tricks I should certainly insert the accomplishment of not acquiring property unless he needs it. The other skills I have proposed for him will not cost much money, so that he will be able, and also tempted, to record the increase in his standard of living by adding to his furniture, by buying a better car or an oil furnace, by going in for collections of medieval armor or ancient coins, and similar surrenders to the magpie streak in all of us. Property quickly crowds out and preys upon less tangible pleasures, and is so often preferred to the fun one can have with one’s body or one’s mind because the joy of its acquisition is so immediate and keen. Property of a decorative or useless nature is, indeed, often more fun in anticipation and at the moment of its acquisition than it ever is again. Insensitiveness to his personal property, unless of course it is extraordinary beautiful, is a desirable skill for any man to have. And, like swimming, bridge, or German, it must be learned and worked at.

VI

What a ferocious program, you may say. And how in the world is it, or even a quarter of it, to be put into effect, granted a normal male specimen of the race? Only a fraction of it will be acquired in school, we all admit. Parents are busy, and except in rare cases parents are the worst possible teachers of their own children, who know them far too well. Summer camps can do some of it. American schools grant long holidays to their pupils from June to October, and the pupils, if left to themselves, use the holidays to wipe out as much education as possible with a useless, unsystematic, healthy good time. For this idle summer, the camps substitute a schedule of outdoor skills, and the boy who goes to summer camp usually comes back knowing how to swim, fish, paddle a canoe, toss a flapjack, and not cry too much when hurt. The skills taught by the summer camp end with outdoor sports. Yet parents are dimly aware of how little school teachers really teach, and cling to supplementary education like that of the summer camps when they can get it. Why not enlarge the camps and to their outdoor curriculum add German, taught as thoroughly as they teach canoeing? Why not, in fact, apply the basic principle of Americanism and have two systems of education competing against each other? On one side, the formal schools, pouring contents into rebellious minds; on the other, summer camps where the children are taught definite humane skills, some of them much better taught than the schools can ever expect to do? Who knows–in course of time the competition might be too severe and the schools might go into receivership.

Ah, I thought so – there is one skill I have forgotten. When, as the result of some trips to Europe, of much prodding on my part, and of summers spent at the kind of summer camp that does not yet exist, I am eventually confronted with a son who can make an onion soup like Savarin, ride a horse like an Indian, play a difficult sonata, speak French and German like a native, and repair a leak in the roof–will not there be something missing? Yes–an accomplishment vitally necessary to an American.

Unusual though this young man should be, he should not seem so. For his own comfort, for mine. Is not a parent’s basic ambition for this child that he be very different from other people, yet manage to seem almost exactly like them?

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Edward October 2, 2012 at 10:43 pm

Great read as always, thanks for the share!

2 Mike October 2, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Very nice essay! So timely…yet nearing a century old.

3 Tommy Oles October 2, 2012 at 11:52 pm

This article reminds me of a book I recently read, What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him, by Byron Forrest Yawn (Harvest House Publishers, 2012: 9780736946384). It the book Yawn references a class that was held in the Spring of 2011 at Boyce College, Louisville, KY entitled Band of Brothers.
Yawn provides the actual course description. I will list a few of the 43 learning objectives:
1. How to forge knives
2. How to shoot and clean guns
3. How to build fires (without a lighter)
5. Go to a butcher and learn about meat
8. How to back a trailer
13. How to castrate a bull
17. how to tan leather
28. Ride along with a Police Officer
42. How to dress well…etc
Read this quote from the course description: “Many Boyce College students will leave the institution uniquely equipped to debate theology, argue philosophy, and parse Greek verbs. However, the student’s ability to impact culture can sometimes be undermined by a lack of knowledge about more masculine areas of interest…As Winston Churchill rightly said, ‘No technical knowledge can outweigh knowledge of the humanities.”
I’d say this class Yawn references and the essay you provided echo the same sentiments exactly. Give Yawn’s book a read.

4 Grant M. Schooley October 3, 2012 at 12:30 am

Excellent, I truly enjoyed this essay. I find the fact that the author appreciates non-academic skills nearly more than academic ones. I have always found that my best education has not come from within a school system, but from life itself. Especially with the social skills such as dancing, playing pool or knowing how to drink well…I use these networking skills much more often than I use nearly anything I have learned thus far at college.
Brilliant advice and an interesting perspective from nearly a century ago.

5 Mike October 3, 2012 at 12:52 am

I found it interesting on the one hand that even in 1933 letter writing was a dying art, and curious that he doesn’t want his son to join the army. Maybe the Army was more of a life-long thing back then? I have always thought that the older generations saw military service as a duty for one, and a source of innumerable personal and professional skills.

6 Pete October 3, 2012 at 12:54 am

Bravo. Great essay. Very dated, but still very relevant.

7 Ben October 3, 2012 at 8:24 am

One should be taught willpower above all else. This would build a polished, disciplined, respectable man and would prevent against hasty decisions regarding any of the above listed “skills”, especially drinking and gambling. Stay away from that crap.

8 Dave October 3, 2012 at 9:05 am

Awesome post. Thanks for looking it up and sharing.

9 Stephen October 3, 2012 at 9:17 am

Personally, I found the writer of this article to be grossly ignorant, afraid of things he did not understand, and proud of it. Calling hunting “the longing to assassinate wild animals” and “barbarous and childish method of asserting the superiority of the human race, and considerably less civilized than dueling,” was the first thing that made me uneasy. But then listing two of his three chief fears for his son as joining the army or joining the church is one of the most piggish, self -centered, disgusting things I have ever heard. That said, I agree with most of the skills listed as important, if not necessary aspects of a man’s life. It would do most of us well to hone the ones we don’t already have and use regularly.

10 Mark Ruddick October 3, 2012 at 9:24 am

Skills are only a means to an end. In developing certain skills we develop character traits in our sons and daughters. If we teach our children discipline, honesty, the value of hard work, respect for self and others and self-reliance, then the skills we use to teach those things are irrelvant. Give me a person with those character traits and I would hire them in an instant and train them in any required skill.

I believe people should have thoses skills but the precise checklist isn’t as important as what they represent.

11 Liam October 3, 2012 at 9:26 am

Good grief … there are so many fun and useful skills here. I’m pushing 30 and when I read an excellent article such as this one I often ask myself, it it too late to learn?

12 Matt October 3, 2012 at 9:39 am

Pete, I gotta disagree with you. I was amazed how much of this still rang true 80 years later.

This is my great grandfather talking about what my grandfather should know, and it sounds like “new” things that we fret about now. The conveniences of life making us soft and lazy, helicopter parents, an educational system that only turns out students who know how to succeed on standardized tests, etc.

This was an incredible read that I’ve already passed along to 5 people.

13 Richard October 3, 2012 at 10:06 am

Excellent article! To accomodate the modern world, I would perhaps add ‘nutrition’ to one of the basic life skills. It seems too many people out there just don’t know how to eat well once on their own.

14 Daniel October 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

Drinking and gambling properly are excercises in willpower.

15 Micaiah October 3, 2012 at 10:40 am

Thank you Ben. Right on.
God’s word commands that we be wise and glorify the Lord with all that we do.

:)

16 Zyll October 3, 2012 at 10:48 am

I wish to teach my son Benjamin Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, as divided here into eight personal and five social:
—–
Personal
The eight personal virtues relate to your attitudes toward activities and their challenges. Good personal character traits will better your chances of success in achieving your goals.

Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

Social

These five social virtues that Franklin stated concern your attitudes toward people with whom you have dealings. Good social character traits result in other people wanting to do business with you or to have relationships with you.

Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

17 David Y October 3, 2012 at 11:23 am

Another interesting post.

While the details will change over time, the idea that young men need to learn a set of life skills is still a good one. Sadly, it is an idea that seems to have gotten lost in recent years.

No wonder that AoM is a site I visit every day. You remind us that some things are timeless, and need to be remembered

18 Colin October 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

Wonderful insight in this essay. I particularly like the section about doing something whether others agree with it or not. I find that extremely relevant.

19 Josh Boldt October 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Excellent. Erudite, indeed.

20 Colin October 3, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Great read, thank you! So much to quote and learn from this

21 Adam October 3, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Good “take aways” here and there. He does appear a tad inflated though. Especially with his bit about hunting being uncivilized then immediately following it up in the next paragraph with a wish for his son to learn to box so he can receive and give blows in “friendship or in anger.”

So we don’t kill animals to eat but we do punch others in anger? Um…?

22 JD October 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm

This was an excellent read. I’ve filed it away for my future son’s benefit.

23 Tye October 3, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I think that there is one that could be added for the modern era, it wouldn’t have sounded quite so important back then since everyone was basically doing it already. That is: How to dress well. And I don’t mean wearing a suit everyday (but one should know how to do that), I mean things like how to choose hats for the occasion, how to wear said hat so that the brim can do its job, how to buy clothes that fit, etc.
Other than that little bit (that I wouldn’t have expected to be on here anyway), this is definitely a great piece and it makes me reconsider some of my own know-how and habits as a young man.

24 Neal October 3, 2012 at 4:43 pm

It’s weird, how in my mid 20′s I’d consider my attitudes as a would-be parent ‘progressive’ based on how my parents raised me, yet from the sounds of it, I’m more old fashioned than my parents were. Cheers to 1933!

25 Andrew October 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm

@Stephen @Adam

I am a hunter, and a member of the church, and all of my grandfathers were in the British army, two generations.

That said, I agree entirely. He’s not talking about hunting for food so much as he’s talking about killing animals for fun and bloodlust, which is a substantial amount of the hunters out there who simply go out “killing sh!t”.

Likewise the church and the military offers the structure that appeals to timidity and general wimpiness just like prison. It’s safe, and while it gets some great people, it also gets a disproportionate amount of wimps who are in it because it’s relatively thoughtless and secure — you simply obey orders. Speaking generally, of course. But by rank of pedants, the church and military is worse.

I grew up with the church, military, and horsey people as the main authorities of the region. It’s like he says.

The great drawback to the article was the writer himself seemed to be a teacher, and teaching is right up there with the church and military as a legend-in-their-own-mind institution.

26 Richard (not the same as #13) October 3, 2012 at 7:58 pm

I was immediately put in mind of an excellent essay by David Wong over at Cracked.com titled “The 10 Most Important Things They Didn’t Teach You In School”.

http://www.cracked.com/article_18611_the-10-most-important-things-they-didnt-teach-you-in-school.html

Written for that website’s audience, the tone is quite snarky and the humor is decidedly lowbrow. Rather the opposite of this site.

But Mr. Wong does a fine job at pointing out the areas where our schools do not prepare teenagers for the *real* challenges they will be facing as they move into adulthood (forgive the crude language, but that’s how the sections are titled):

#10. Sex Ed (for Girls): How to Spot a Douchebag
#9. Sex Ed (for Boys): Why Porn is Not a Good Way to Learn About Sex
#8. Phys-Ed: Practical Self-Defense, or “How To Get Away From Somebody Who is Trying to Mug or Rape You.”
#7. Industrial Arts: Emergency Repairs
#6. Business Success = Meeting the Right People
#5. Health: How to Stop Throwing Your Money Away on Snake Oil
#4. Health: Why Losing Weight Requires Some Amount of Suffering
#3. Home Economics: How to Cook Cheap Food That Won’t Kill You
#2. Political Science: Why Talk Radio is a Terrible Source of Information
#1. Social Studies: Life is Hard and You Will Die, Get Over It

The one section that many commenters agreed was needed was one on Personal Financial Management (how to live within a budget, why credit cards are NOT free money, et al.).

27 Pete October 3, 2012 at 8:39 pm

Matt, Good points. Agreed.

28 Birch October 3, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Sounds like my parents’ generation complaining about mine. I found many of the same messages in This American Life #474. Interesting.

29 Dominick October 4, 2012 at 5:48 am

Ignorance, and fear of things he does not understand…

Sadly, I saw none of the “erudite style and wit” that others see here. Rather he seems rather opinionated with nothing substantive to backup his opinions. First, he fails to make the distinction between hunting for food and killing for sport, which is a very important distinction. He also advocates boxing over jujitsu as a method of self defense. Boxing does indeed toughen a young man up and is great physical exercise, but it is a sport, very limited in its techniques and strategy for purposes of self defense. Proper training of traditional Judo and Jujitsu methods combined with hard training in sport combatives such as sport judo and boxing have been shown to be very effective at preparing one to defend themselves in any type of situation, including defense against weapons, as we discovered in WWII. I also got the impression reading this article that the author himself has never actually learned a foreign language, nor does he give any real advice how to do so. I however have successfully learned two.

30 Nick October 4, 2012 at 7:18 am

Mike: re Army service

Between the two world wars military service wasn’t well respected, and often seen as the refuge of those that couldn’t make it in real life. Many people honestly thought we’d never fight a war again, and others felt that the US shouldn’t interfere in other countries warmongering. The second attitude is why we didn’t seriously enter WWII until after Pearl Harbor. Simliar to some attitudes during the 60/70′s, but from what I understand, much more wide spread.

31 Joao Ferreira October 4, 2012 at 8:41 am

Using a computer, or mastering that kind of technology, is probably a must in today’s life. Reading and math skills are very important, while reading is not just understanding words, but mastering interpretation of a text. There are two other skills you could call mental or social, that I find most important: 1. Listen – a capacity to actually listen and try to understand other people’s ideas. 2. Think – have a critical reasoning about what is read or eared and specially to what is taken for granted as the truth by public opinion.

32 Ryan Gideon October 4, 2012 at 10:39 am

Love you blog, keep it up.

33 Justin R October 4, 2012 at 11:29 am

This should resonate with every father’s soul

34 Claude October 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Definitely some pieces of this I don’t care for. But most of these are valuable in my opinion.

Im working on creating an essay similar to this. My son is only 6, and I’m trying to fill a notebook with the things I value and skills I believe he should learn, in case something should happen to me before I have a chance to teach him.

This list is a new source for ideas.

35 Carl October 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm

You want your young man to carve a chicken, but not hunt geese? Hunting is as natural as sunshine, and as old as Eden. People who look down on hunting but are happy buying beef from the grocery store (ie. mass stock yards) have their elitist heads up where it shouldn’t be.

36 Richard October 4, 2012 at 8:09 pm

The title made me think about this quote from Robert Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

37 Conner October 5, 2012 at 10:49 am

Stellar, and written with class. The last couple of paragraph required re-reading, but I think they may have been the most important lesson: He should be elite in action and humble in attitude.

38 Jordan October 5, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I think many posters here are misinterpreting the authors comment as it relates to “joining the Army, entering the Church, or becoming Horsey. In particular the first two. He wasn’t saying that he didn’t’ want them to join the Army. He said he “feared for his future” if he did.

Who wouldn’t fear for their childs future in the Army? This article was written a little more than 10 years after the 1st World War, by far the most horrific that had ever been fought. Any father would be damn well within his rights to fear for his son given the imminent possibility of fighting another one in 8 years time.

His second fear, of his son entering the Church. This is not a fear that his son is spiritual, believes in God, attends sacrament / mass / congregation and so forth. It is a fear that his son may enter the Priesthood.

Honestly, it strikes me odd that so many are willing to cast aside the obvious benefits this man is proposing throughout this essay. He didn’t say his son should drink or gamble. In fact he said the opposite, but he also followed it up, probably knowing that his son would come into contact with both of these vices, basically saying; if you’re going to gamble do it well so you don’t lose your shirt and if you’re going to drink, do so sensibly. Now what the hell is wrong with that? NOTHING.

39 Leigh Ratcliffe October 6, 2012 at 2:11 am

He has one thing right: Assassinating a dumb animal is despicable.
For food – yes.
As part of a cull to preserve the herd – as mercifully as possible.
In self defence.

Just for the “fun” of it, or for “sport”?
Not in this life buddy.

40 Nestordamus October 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Funny how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” This essay is 80 years old and yet, is still very applicable today. Of course, there are a few anachronisms but I will be teaching my son many of these lessons.

41 Josh October 7, 2012 at 9:02 am

I thought this article was fantastic and have already passed it on to several friends. I have a daughter and wish I could find something similar from a father to a daughter. The ideas that were the most dated were the parts where public education has failed us. Also, Brett I don’t know anything about websites, but is it possible for you to make all links open in a separate window. It would be easier in a longer article like this.

42 Everett October 7, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Re: Military service. A father of a 10 or 12 year old boy in 1933 was very likely drafted into WWI. You see a hugely different perspective on military enlistment from men who were drafted involuntarily.

43 Eames October 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm

This makes me feel even worse about myself…

44 Greg October 9, 2012 at 4:31 pm

@Josh:
Place the cursor over the link and right-click with your mouse. Then select “Open in new tab” or “Open in new window”. This function is also available on most tablet/mobile browsers, often by holding your finger on the link for a few seconds until a menu pops up. Finally, if you have a mouse with a roller in the middle, you can click the roller instead of left-clicking and it will open the link in a new tab for you. Hope this helps.

45 Sasha October 11, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Excellent. Should be required reading for all western males.

46 Al October 15, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Wow, this article resonates like none other has in some time. I grew up dirt poor in a run down shack of a trailer in the Arizona highlands, but had a wonderful childhood running around in the open country with fellow misfits and an occasional white trash outdoorsy dad. I now run with a more “sophisticated” and “educated” crowd and feel sorry for them. While they played video games AYSO soccer in suburban enclaves, we were playing sand lot baseball, busting each others’ noses open, backpacking, swimming in streams and irrigation ditches, harvesting and cooking small game over open fires, fixing our own bikes, day laboring for cash, walking miles to each others’ homes, building forts, and more or less learning most of these things the author advocates.

I’m incredibly grateful for the roundedness my childhood brought. Complemented with a college education and professional training, I can find myself in almost any situation these days and handle it well. I fully agree with the author that boys should experience such things. A big thanks to the AoM crew for re-posting this. A real treat in the middle of my office-bound workday.

47 Charles October 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I very much appreciate the general sentiment of the article. Our boys do need to be raised with a wide variety of skills that many today consider unimportant or mere preferences.

I further agreed with a good deal of the actual content, but his obviously upper crust bent was a bit much for me. His comments about military or church service were in my view enough to negate every other aspect of his supposed manhood.

Coupled with his comment about hunting, I started to get a picture that could only be described as naive or perhaps insulated from reality by privilege. Add his obvious superior tone in the language and I really have a hard time respecting him.

This article was written in 1933 and I notice that he didn’t mention anything about financial hardship. He does, however, mention travel to Europe, collections of expensive artifacts, etc. Are we so starved for manhood in the 21st Century that we can overlook this elitist bologna in order to glean a few good ideas?

I really believe that this is the kind of man who would benefit from military service–both enlisted so as to understand humility and hardship, and as an officer, so as to understand the strain of leadership with life and death in the balance. If not military service, then perhaps working and living with people who deal with reality at a much more basic level.

Truly, I’m not certain whether I would want to shake this man’s hand or knock his teeth out. He’s the kind who needs thinks he’s worldly, but is truly insulated from the vast majority of the lives and lifestyles of the world.

Oh well, I’m starting to ramble. He does have a number of good things to say regarding many particular skills, however.

48 Charles October 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I very much appreciate the general sentiment of the article. Our boys do need to be raised with a wide variety of skills that many today consider unimportant or mere preferences.

I further agreed with a good deal of the actual content, but his obviously upper crust bent was a bit much for me. His comments about military or church service were in my view enough to negate every other aspect of his supposed manhood.

Coupled with his comment about hunting, I started to get a picture that could only be described as naive or perhaps insulated from reality by privilege. Add his obvious superior tone in the language and I really have a hard time respecting him.

This article was written in 1933 and I notice that he didn’t mention anything about financial hardship. He does, however, mention travel to Europe, collections of expensive artifacts, etc. Are we so starved for manhood in the 21st Century that we can overlook this elitist bologna in order to glean a few good ideas?

I really believe that this is the kind of man who would benefit from military service–both enlisted so as to understand humility and hardship, and as an officer, so as to understand the strain of leadership with life and death in the balance. If not military service, then perhaps working and living with people who deal with reality at a much more basic level.

Truly, I’m not certain whether I would want to shake this man’s hand or knock his teeth out. He’s the kind who needs thinks he’s worldly, but is truly insulated from the vast majority of the lives and lifestyles of the world.

Oh well, I’m starting to ramble. He does have a number of good things to say regarding many particular skills, however

49 KierO October 18, 2012 at 5:36 am

Everything I intend to teach my son is summarised very nicely by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

50 Natasha October 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Other than being in disagreement about the hunting of animals…I’d love to meet a young fella who knew even half of this stuff. It’s so hard nowadays to find a guy who can do any real skills!!! Remote control abilities don’t do anything for anybody. Or Video games. You can’t eat that, or live in them. And then add in the extra variable of a guy who is an honest-to-goodness Christian. Hence why my dating attempts have been few and far between…

Seriously though, learn a few of these. They make a guy so much more attractive. Maybe even downright hot. Bring me some jerky from an animal that you hunted…now we’re talkin! That’s better than roses or chocolate in my book.

51 Srinivas Kari February 23, 2013 at 1:03 pm

1. How to have great sex (i.e thrusting techniques)
2. Knowledge about technology (eg how to use the internet well, laptops, smartphones etc)
3. Following a great diet and exercise routine to stay fit and healthy (eg. Paleo diet)
4. How to study/ learn (i.e The techniques to learn any subject within a finite time frame)
5. How to deal with bullies (at school, family, work)
6. How to enjoy time spent alone (i.e how to not whine about not having social company and utilize time alone to fullest potential)
7. How to build and maintain great relationships (i.e with parents, siblings, spouse, in – laws, friends, colleagues, etc)
8. How to think for yourself (i.e to ask the question “why?”)
9. How to be financially responsible (i.e live within means)

52 John Powell October 2, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Mr. Tommy Oles:

I was the instructor for the Boyce College class referenced in Byron Yawn’s book. I wrote that description and syllabus you referenced in your post.

I just want to say that much of the material that was used in the formation of that class was sparked by articles I’ve read here at artofmanliness.com

In fact, when the class was over, the young men who took the class gave me a gift. It was a group photograph from the first and last nights we met. And in between the two photos is a handwritten letter from Mr. Brett McKay. I’ll cherish it forever.

But what I’ll cherish more, is the fact that these men were instructed and freed from their ignorance on what manly men do. I hope this knowledge follows them into their marriages, jobs, and other facets of their lives.

53 Jérôme D. Andre October 3, 2013 at 9:46 am

I disagree with “Handle firearms”.
If you live in a society where you still HAVE to know how to handle guns for self defence, then that is a sad thing in my opinion.

And I disagree with the necessity to learn how to drink. Alcohol is really bad stuff in greater amounts of it, and I really do not think you have to get drunk even once to know your limits. You don’t have to get shot, to know it would hurt.

I couldn’t agree more with the rest of the article, though.

54 FRG October 4, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Jerome D. Andre:

I strongly believe your argument is flawed. I see you disagree with “Handling of Firearms” and your reason is due to self defense. Your assumption is that anyone who handles firearms does so in ways of self defense. Don’t forget that in professional shooting sports, contestants “Handle Firearms”. These sports include : Skeet, Trap, IDPA, Metallic Silhouette, Biathlon, and other sports that demand of various shooting disciplines. In this essay, the meaning of handling a firearm is an a manner that will not lead to accidents or fatalities that could have been completely avoided and were caused by the negligent handling of a firearm. Negligent handling of firearms is not limited to: pointing the barrel at someone even if the firearm is unloaded, having finger on trigger when there is no need to, keeping firearm loaded and safety disengaged when not in use, etc.

Furthermore, you disagree with “Learn how to drink”, clearly you did not analyze what you read if you read it. The last sentence of that passage states: “Furthermore, he should learn his capacity and stick within its limits; he should know something about the different kinds of drink, and which drinks produce chaos within him when mixed. By all means let him leave drink alone if wants to. But since, nine times out of ten, he will drink, let him do so sensibly.” Clearly your assumption is that to learn how to drink is to consume in great amounts, and having to get drunk as the only way to learn ones limit. Learning to drink, is meant to reduce or avoid the instances where one can end up in embarrassing situations due to drinking.

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